Will G-20 Finance Ministers Meeting Change Joe Oliver’s Mind about Corporate Tax Cheats?

joe oliver is attending this week's G20 meeting in Australia

Canadian Finance Minister Joe Oliver is attending the G20 Finance Ministers meeting in Cairn, Australia this weekend to review the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s set of sweeping proposals for repairing a  broken global corporate tax system.

The OECD is proposing a series of measures to reform an outdated international corporate tax system and make it more difficult for multinational corporations to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. One OECD spokesman was quoted as telling tax-avoiding bad boys like Apple, Starbucks and Amazon to “watch out”.  Pre-meeting rhetoric? Perhaps. But in this case there is some substance behind the threat.

Indeed, some of the proposals look very promising, particularly a plan to require companies to disclose revenue and before-tax profit on a country-by-country basis.

This could make it easier for tax authorities to identify companies that may be trying to bend the rules and therefore deserving of greater scrutiny. The only catch is that the information would only be made available to tax authorities, making it impossible for civil society watch dogs to assess if they are doing their job.

Other OECD proposals are not as well developed, for example their suggestions on how to deal with the problem of treaty shopping. This is when multinational corporations abuse bilateral tax treaties meant to avoid double taxation for the specific goal of achieving “non-taxation”.  It is a widespread problem. Governments that are members of the OECD or the G20 have agreed on new minimum standards for tax treaties aimed at preventing abuse, but these are fairly weak and would be just patches on a broken system.

Former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty acknowledged that there were major problems with Canadian companies evading taxes by “treaty shopping”. The abuse of provisions in the Canada – Barbados Tax Treaty is one of the explanations for why there is so much Canadian direct foreign investment (some $63 billion in 2013) in that tiny island. He promised to crack down on tax treaty abuse in his 2013 Federal Budget.

But this week, The Globe and Mail reported that Flaherty’s successor, Joe Oliver, has quietly shelved plans to crack down on the Canadian multinationals who are abusing international tax treaties. Corporate lobbying, particularly from the resource sector, is reported to be behind this turn around. When asked for an explanation for why they were not moving ahead to curb treaty shopping, the Finance Department spokesperson told the Globe and Mail that they were “awaiting further work” on this by the OECD.

Those hoping the OECD action plan on treaty shopping will fill this gap will have to wait a while longer as the proposed short-term “minimum standards” are unlikely to be much of a fix.

The OECD report concludes that ultimately what is needed is a new multilateral tax instrument that would replace the patch-work of over 3000 bilateral tax treaties that is riddled with loopholes. It acknowledges that trying to re-negotiate and amend all the existing tax treaties would be impractical. But negotiating a new multilateral tax treaty would also be a major challenge.

There is no doubt that this is what is needed. But the OECD and the G20 do not include many developing countries, who need to be part of the process. The OECD and the G20 have helped to get the ball rolling. But they need to pass the ball on to an upgraded UN Tax Committee to complete the job.

Canada, and other developed countries have opposed moves to have the UN Tax Committee upgraded from a committee of experts to a representative body. But taking the international corporate tax rules to a new level will require, not only a more representative body where a new multilateral tax treaty could be negotiated, but also that it would have the capacity to enforce these rules and mediate any disputes.

Will the Canadian government be part of the growing international momentum towards comprehensive reform of international corporate tax rules and tackling tax havens? The Canadian government has taken some small steps in the past two Federal Budgets introduced by former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. And Prime Minister Harper did finally sign on to the G8 Tax Havens Action Plan last year. But reports this week that the Canada Revenue Agency has issued notices to over 300 auditors in the international and aggressive tax planning units and the revelation that Finance Minister Oliver has dropped plans to go after treaty shopping are indications that Canada may be increasingly offside with the growing international consensus. One step forward, two steps back, I am afraid.

I still hope the G20 Finance Ministers meeting will change Minister Oliver’s mind. But I must admit it is faint hope.